This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The rate of abortions in Utah has dropped dramatically in recent years, setting record after record for the lowest mark since the state started keeping statistics after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
And the actual number of Utahns who had abortions 2,893 in 2013 is the lowest since 1977, even though the population of women in their childbearing years has doubled since then.
Utah's statistics are an amped version of a national trend. There's plenty of speculation as to the reasons behind the decline, everything from the Great Recession to better contraceptives to more restrictive abortion laws.
But there is no definitive reason for the drop.
"From our perspective, fewer abortions are a great thing," said Laurie Baksh, with the Utah Department of Health's Maternal and Infant Health Program. "It would be interesting to know a little bit more about why that trend is happening."
The numbers • Baksh has watched the statistics closely. She's seen that from 1997 to 2008 Utah's abortion rate was relatively flat, hovering around six abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age, which is 15 to 44 years old.
That rate dropped to five in 2011. And it fell to 4.6 in 2013, the most recent data published by the state health department.
The rate was 7.2 when first calculated by the state in 1975 and it reached a high of 11.1 in 1980. Through the years, Utah has always been far below the national level.
The Guttmacher Institute tracks statistics nationwide and, in 2011, noted that the U.S. rate was 16.9, the lowest recorded since 1973, and just as in Utah, it has been dropping in recent years.
Based on geography, there are big differences in abortion rates in Utah. In Salt Lake County, there are 100 abortions for every 1,000 babies born. In Summit County, that number jumps to 143.5. In Utah County, the abortion ratio is 22.9. Summit and Salt Lake counties are among the least Mormon in the state, according to numbers offered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Utah County is one of the most Mormon. The LDS Church opposes abortion except in cases of incest, rape or when the life or health of the mother is jeopardized, or a fetus has terminal defects.
That religious split hasn't changed dramatically in recent years, but Baksh points out that the economy has.
The bottom line • The economic collapse of 2008 was the worst since the Great Depression and the recovery has been long and slow. That, Baksh surmises, caused many women to think about the economic realities of raising a child.
"They are probably working a little bit harder not to become pregnant because now is not the time," Baksh said.
It is just a theory driven by the calendar: When the economy took a nosedive, so did abortions. Statistics, though, don't show similar drops during previous economic downturns in the early 2000s or the 1980s.
More than just the pill • Karrie Galloway, director of Planned Parenthood of Utah, said tight finances could have resulted in greater family planning. But she believes a more definitive reason for the trend of fewer abortions is the increased use of long-acting reversible contraception, which includes intrauterine devices and subdermal implants. The percentage of young women using such methods of contraception has risen throughout the 2000s and 2010s, and Galloway says it's now at about 12 percent.
"It's gotta have some effect," Galloway said.
A study conducted by the University of California-San Francisco focused on these long-acting contraceptives in Iowa from 2006 and 2008 and found there was a strong correlation between their use and a declining abortion rate.
In Utah, roughly half of the abortions performed in 2013 involved women who did not have a history of using contraceptives in the past year, a figure that hasn't changed much recently.
Some have pointed to increased access to the morning-after pill, also known as Plan B, an emergency contraceptive. But the Food and Drug Administration approved over-the-counter sales in mid 2013, so it's unlikely that this drug had a major impact on the statistics to date.
Social changes • Conservative commentator David Frum argues the decline has little to do with the economy or with contraceptives. Instead, he points to a growing acceptance of unmarried women having children.
"As marriage fades, unwed motherhood has evolved from an acceptable outcome to something close to an inevitability," he wrote in The Atlantic. And he ranked the choices a woman has for an unexpected pregnancy as, first, single parenthood, then abortion, then a shotgun wedding and finally, adoption.
That may be a factor nationwide, particularly over time, but the most recent stats in Utah paint a more muddled picture. The number of unmarried women having an abortion dropped from 2,390 in 2008 to 1,821 in 2011, but hasn't changed much since then. In 2013, unmarried Utahns had 1,838 abortions.
Abortions among married women actually spiked in the last few years, jumping from 762 in 2008 to 987 in 2011, then fell back to 705 in 2013. This recent reduction in married women having abortions is the reason that Utah saw its abortion rate drop to a record low in 2013.
New laws • Galloway says fewer abortions are a good thing if they are due to fewer unexpected pregnancies, but she worries some may tie it to more restrictive abortion laws.
"Our state has certainly, through its policymakers and its lawmakers, set a goal of preventing people from actualizing those decisions by putting barriers in their way," she said.
She was talking about the state's 72-hour waiting period, which went into effect in mid-2012. Utah was the first state to implement such a long waiting period, which requires women to have a face-to-face meeting with an abortion provider before the clock starts ticking.
That law was sponsored in Utah's House of Representatives by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy. He said the point was to offer "a cooling-off period," during which he hoped women who felt pressured to get an abortion by a husband or boyfriend would be able to reconsider.
"I will make no excuse for policy that helps reduce the number of abortions," he said. "In this case though, it wasn't the situation where, like other states, you are trying to restrict access to clinics. It simply makes sure there's informed consent."
Eliason is not sure the law has reduced the number of abortions. If it has, it's probably not by a huge number, according to research by Sarah Roberts, an assistant professor at the University of California-San Francisco's School of Medicine.
She talked to 500 women in Utah who met with an abortion provider at Planned Parenthood, starting in October 2013 and then checked back three weeks later to see if they terminated their pregnancy.
Her results haven't been published yet, but she said that more than 85 percent did have an abortion.
"Most women are sure of their decision and went on to implement it," Roberts said. The reasons women didn't have an abortion included that they changed their mind, they hadn't gotten around to it yet and some found out they weren't pregnant.
Utah's Legislature has passed other laws in recent years focused on abortion, including one that requires providers to offer women drugs to block the pain a fetus may feel during an abortion.
National Right to Life argues that laws such as these are having their desired effect.
"The legislative efforts of the right-to-life movement, and significantly, the resulting national debate and educational campaigns surrounding pro-life legislation should not be minimized when discussing the decline in abortion numbers," said Carol Tobias, the group's president.
Baksh, with the state health department, has no way of knowing what, if any, impact these new laws have had on abortion. The state doesn't track their impact.
She said one national law may also drive the abortion rate lower and that's the Affordable Care Act, which offers women contraception without a co-payment. Galloway says that's true, but the rollout of that requirement has been slow, going into effect only when an employer changes plans and then women have to opt in to take advantage of the benefit.
The data are not there to support the claim that restrictive abortion laws have helped push down the rate, Galloway says.
"I don't think they can draw those conclusions any better than I can say [there are fewer abortions because] people have been able to access family planning and have good methods to prevent unintended pregnancy," she says. "We are guessing people's hearts and minds."
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Split politics on the issue
National polling has found that voters are split on the politically contentious issue of abortion.
Gallup's 2014 survey found that:
47 percent • identified themselves as "pro-choice" and
46 percent • identified themsevles as "pro-life."